J. S. Bach, Hugo Distler: Music that is Good for the Soul

23 02 2009

Yesterday Timberley and I attended a concert by the Louisville Bach Society.  We were there courtesy of WUOL Louisville  (“your classical choice”) which graciously awarded me tickets even though I was not the fifth caller.  the program contained several cantatas by J. S. Bach, one solo cantata by Antonio Vivaldi, and two motets by the Nazi-era German composer Hugo Distler.

All of the music in the concert was written originally for the church.  Bach and Vivaldi, as chapel composers, had the job of composing a new cantata every week.  Writing the music was of course all done by hand.  The parts had to be rewritten for each member of the orchestra.  Rehearsals had to be held and all of the hand-written parts had to be corrected and so on.  When one considers that even the lines on the paper, the music staves,  had to be hand-drawn, it makes the physical task of writing music almost as daunting as the musical task of coming up with the music in the first place.

For those who complain that the lyrics in modern praise music are too repetitive, they should listen to the opening cantata from Bach, (BWV 69) “Lobe den Herrn, Meine Seele” (“Praise the Lord, O My Soul”).  The opening chorus sings a verse taken from Psalm 103, “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not his benefits.”  That line is sung over, and over, and over, and over again.  But the difference between Bach and modern praise music (if it is not obvious enough) is that when Bach repeats the lyric it part of an ever-changing meolody–a tune that is constantly developing into something new.  As the congregation listens to the choir sing they have the twin experience of hearing a new song at every turn, and of hearing over and over, “Do not forget, do not forget.”

The hymn that caught my attention first yesterday came from the second Bach cantata (BWV 149) “Man singet mit Freuden” (“One sings with joy”).  Here are the words of the final chorale:

Ah. Lord, let this thine angel dear
At my last hour this soul of mine
To Abraham’s lap carry,
My body in its resting place
In quiet, free of woe and pain,
Sleep till the day of judgment!
And then from death awaken me,
That with mine eyes I may see thee
In total joy, O Son of God,
My Savior and my throne of grace!
Lord Jesus Christ, O hear me now,
O hear me now,
I will thee praise eternally!

I, of course, thought of Anna.  I considered her final thoughts.  I was glad that she had her faith in the one savior of mankind, Jesus Christ, and that she could sing these words, had she known them, with Bach and the rest of us.  I am glad that she is now resting quietly at Abraham’s side, waiting for the glorious day of Christ’s return when the dead will be raised.  With her eyes she will see with total joy her Savior on his throne of grace!

We don’t talk this way now.  I don’t know if people talked that way in the time of Bach.  But that is why we need to come to church.  That is why we need good church music.  It elevates our thoughts and gives us good words to use to praise our Lord and to talk about things are true and solid.

The second half of the program had two motets by Hugo Distler, who was new to me.  The first motet was on a text from Isaiah 53, “Surely he hath borne our sickness.”  Following the biblical text is a hymn text from Paul Gerhardt, a reformation hymn writer of the 17th century.  Read and listen to what he says about the sacrifice of Jesus Christ:

A Lamb goes uncomplaining forth,
The guilt of all men hearing,
And laden with the sins of earth,
None else the burden sharing.
Goes patient on, grow weak and faint,
To slaughter led without complaint,
That spotless life to offer.
Bears shame and stripes, and wounds and death.
Anguish and mockery, and saith:
Willingly all this I suffer.

Words like this remind me of a sign I was in the office of a pastor of a church I was visiting.  He allowed me to use his office to pray before preaching to his congregation.  As I sat down at his desk and lifted my head, my eyes fell on a sign with bold letters he had hung on the wall right in front of his desk:

Prepare to Meet Thy God

I told the congregation, this is the kind of man you want preaching God’s word to you.  This is a man who takes his labor of preaching seriously.  That seriousness of spirit and deep, deep devotion to God came through clearly in the music yesterday.  May we all live our lives in anticipation of meeting our God.  May it be a day of joy at seeing our Lord.


Anna the Marine Biologist

22 02 2009


Anna loved all creatures.  She not only cared for them, but she had a deep affection for them that was at the same time beautiful and a little annoying.  It was beautiful when she was caring for a creature that was wounded, defenseless, or ugly.  It was annoying when she showed affection for a rat that we were trying “get out of the house” or for the red ants that covered our front porch.  The ones with the extremely painful bite.

This love for creatures manifested in a several ways.  One of them was in her choice of future profession.  She had decided early on that she wanted to be an artist and a marine biologist.  She did not know how she would do both.  I suggested that she dive and study the undersea creatures.  Then, after coming back up, she could paint pictures of them.  She thought that might work.

One hitch in the plan was that Anna would need to learn to dive.  She was already a good swimmer.  She was not afraid of the water.  The next step was to take her snorkeling so she could actually get a first-hand view of the sea creatures.  On a trip to Bali I took Sam and Anna out to a reef so we could try snorkeling.  We found the equipment and someone who would take us out in a boat.  Sam and Anna both wore vests.  Sam was already big enough that he fit in the mask and snorkel pretty well.  Anna’s was perhaps a little big for her, but she wanted to try.  And off we went.

We went out and saw some beautiful fish, anenomes, and other creatures.  I tried to  stay within eyesight of both kids at all times, but I was favoring Anna a bit.  At one point I came up for a look around and I saw Anna upright in the water, crying out for me.  I quickly swam over to her, grabbed ahold of her and brought her to the boat.  She was coughing and sputtering.  She had obviously taken in some water.  After I got her settled down a bit and she had stopped crying I asked her what happened.  She told me that she thrown up in the water.  When I asked her how that happened she explained.  “Oh Daddy, I was just trying to rest a little bit.  I decided to float on my back and enjoy the sunshine.  It was so beautiful out and the sky was so blue.  I was so happy, and so I took in a deep breath and . . .”

“Anna, was the snorkel still in your mouth?” I asked.

“Yes, and all of a sudden my mouth was full of salt water and I threw up.”

I couldn’t help but start laughing, picturing Anna floating on her back with her snorkel stuck back down in the ocean.  I gave her a big hug and said I was glad she was okay.  She took the rest of the time off and rested in the boat.  She learned her first snorkeling lesson the hard way.

Anna and the Importance of Books

18 02 2009


Reading was very important to Anna.  It is safe to say that reading gave her more pleasure than any other worldly activity.  She was known as the girl that carried books wherever she went.  They went with her to bed.  They went with her to school.  Whenever we got in the car, Anna would bring along three, four, or five books “just in case.”  Her books were almost like an emergency kit.  Samuel is learning now as a Boy Scout about “being prepared.”  For Anna, that meant having some good reading with you.

I mention this because I was talking to a few people yesterday and today about Anna and the matter of reading came up.  One of these people, after he heard some of my stories, remarked that he had read stories of the Puritans and how their children showed great evidences of regeneration at an early age.  He always found them a little hard to believe, but then added that it seemed as if Anna showed those same evidences.

I don’t want to equate reading with faith.  Many atheists are good readers, too.  It’s just they have been reading the wrong books.  But I will say this:  that reading provides the reader a vocabulary for life.  For the Christian, reading, and especially reading the word of God, gives the believer a vocabulary for faith.

Anna read a great many books during her brief life span.  We have not tried to catalogue everything in her room, but I am certain that it is in the hundreds of books, and most of those she had read multiple times.  Because of her reading, Anna had a much wider perspective on life than have many others, including adults.  She had swum in some pretty deep waters even at nine years old.

Because of her reading, Anna had an awareness of what she was feeling and thinking and could relate her thoughts to a broader world.  But perhaps more importantly, she had a vocabulary of words and expressions from which to draw to communicate those thoughts to others.  Conversations were never boring or trivial with Anna.

I have written on this blog about how Anna learned to read and the importance of the word of God to Anna.  I mention this again here to encourage all of us to read more.  And not just to read more, but to read more good books.  This will begin in large part by parents reading good classics to their children before they can read for themselves.  It will mean parents modeling to the children that reading is important.  It might even mean substituting evening television with family reading time.  It was a sad time for me when the children began reading longer books on their own and stopped relying on our evening read aloud sessions for their literary intake.  I began missing out on many good books because the children were reading on their own.

Those evening reading sessions did much for our family.  Of course it encouraged the children to read.  But it also provided us much to talk about.  We never lacked for things to discuss, questions to raise, or just funny stories to tell and retell.  I don’t know how many times I heard Samuel and Anna telling the Miller’s Tale with a great deal of vigor and much laughter by all.  (Warning: we read an abridged version of the Canterbury Tales; the link here is to the original and it is quite a bit more “colorful” than ours.)   But the most important thing that our reading time provided us was personal family time every night.  We had actual contact with one another.  We had times to talk together about things.  Our family grew very tight during those evening reading sessions.  I miss them now.  But then again, there are many things I miss.

Anna Goes to Preschool

17 02 2009


When we arrived in Indonesia the children were 6 and 4 years old.  Samuel was finishing up a few months of kindergarten, but Anna had not yet begun school.  Timberley and I were going to language school every day so we had to make some arrangements for Anna.  In Indonesia we had a few options.  The first thing we tried was to hire a young lady who would take care of Anna during the day.  Mbak Watik (Miss Watik) would be there when Anna awoke in the morning.  She would help Anna get dressed.  She would make Anna’s bed.  She would play with Anna.  She would bring food to Anna and try to help her eat.  But just like Poppleton with Cherry Sue, Anna just couldn’t stand it.  She wanted to be left alone.  She wanted to read.  She wanted to work puzzles.   She wanted some space.  So in the end, Mbak Watik had to find other work.

But what would we do with Anna?  We decided that the best thing would be to have her go to an Indonesian pre-school.  She visited  a few times and we decided she could try it out.  It was a small school, two rooms with a small playground outside.  The slide was a concrete construction with steps up one side and smooth slab of concrete down the other.  The other playground equipment was in various states of violation of basic safety rules for children.  The teacher was a very nice lady, I thought, but she always reminded me of an Indonesian, female Sgt. Carter.  Timberley always told me that that description wasn’t fair, but I don’t know how else to say it.  She was not an attractive woman.


We bought Anna’s uniform and sent her off everyday to school.  In the year that Anna was there, I don’t think we ever did learn to navigate or understand the Indonesian school calendar.  Some days were normal days, usually only a few hours since it was pre-school, but some days they would only go for maybe 30 minutes to an hour and then come back home.  Some days school was cancelled altogether.  Everything was very fluid, but it seemed that all of the Indonesians knew and understood the schedule, or when it came on them unawares, it didn’t bother them at all.  Adjusting to Anna’s ever-changing schedule was one of the lessons we had to learn about Indonesian culture.

Pre-school in Indonesia is not for the faint of heart.  For example, the teacher graded coloring assignments.  These are four-year-olds, remember.  Anna would come home with a picture that she colored and up in the corner in large letters, “B-“, or “C+.”  I don’t think Anna cared, but we didn’t like it.  Anna suffered from two problems with her coloring skills.  The first, and perhaps most problematic, was that she could not color within the lines.  I am sure at her age it was mainly mechanical, and yet when you look at her classmates’ drawings, they were all meticulous.  There was never a stray line, or a slight smudge of color outside the strict black-and-white boundaries.  The second problem Anna had with her coloring was that she liked to use her imagination when she chose colors.  Why does grass have to be green when it can just as easily be purple?  Why can’t a dog have pink spots on his brown coat?  And so it went.  The teachers did not appreciate Anna’s sense of wonder and imagination.

Anna learned another lesson at pre-school.  Don’t cry.  Not when you are hurt.  Not when you are sad.  And never out loud.  Indonesians don’t cry in public.  She made the mistake of crying one day in class.  I don’t remember the cause.  The teacher made her sit outside by herself until she could stop.  She saw another child suffer the same punishment.  Her experience embarassed her so much that she promised herself that she would never cry in school again.  I did not like the fact that Anna felt the need to stifle those emotions and her reactions to them, but at the same time I noticed a strength that developed in her that I had not seen before.  It was not that she felt things less.  If you knew Anna at all, you knew that she was very emotional and sometimes very dramatic in her emotions.  But it was that she was learning to control herself and the way she presented herself to the world.  She was becoming a young lady.

After a year of language school, it was time to pull Anna out of her pre-school.  I sat her down one day to talk about the decision to take her out.  I was ready to explain to her the reasons and to convince her that leaving her school was the best option.  I was not ready when, after I let her know that she would not be going back, she quickly said, “Okay,” and turned to leave.

“Wait a minute,” I said.  “Aren’t you upset about leaving school?”


“But what about your friends there?  Won’t you miss your friends?”

“No, I don’t have any friends at school.”

“What about the children you play with at break time?  Aren’t they your friends?”

“No, I always play by myself on the swings at break time.” 

“But what about your teacher?”  I was grasping for straws here.  “You liked your teacher, didn’t you?”

Anna made a funny face.  “Oh, Dad, of course not.  She was mean to all the kids.”

I was finally ready to give up.  “Well, Anna, was there anything about school that you liked?”

“No, not really.”

“Well if you didn’t like school so much, then why didn’t you say something before now?”

She didn’t miss a beat in telling me.  “Because I knew that was what I was supposed to do.”

I almost started to cry.  On the one hand I was proud of her for enduring something that she knew she didn’t like, and I was glad that she was so aware of what was going on, even as a five-year old.  But I was also sad that she felt she needed to sacrifice for the sake of our call to Indonesia.  I gave her a big hug, and said, “Anna, please don’t ever feel that you have to put up with things just because you think we expect you to.  I want you to let me know when something is not going well.”

Happy Birthday, Timberley!

16 02 2009

Today is my bride’s birthday.  She is lovelier than ever and every year seems to grow in new ways.  I can’t wait to see what is to come!  Here we are in Roma in front of the Colosseum on this past New Year’s Eve.  What a beautiful day to spend with my beautiful wife.  Happy Birthday.


My Mom at 80

13 02 2009


Sorry if this was a secret, Mom.

Today is my Mom’s 80th birthday.  She is  a great mother to me and my brothers and a great grandmother (not a great-grandmother) to Sam and Anna and her other grandchildren.  This is one of my favorite pictures of her with Anna.  This was from our last trip to Disneyland together.  Our kids are not night owls by any stretch.  Anna wanted to stay up and watch the Main Street Parade and that is when this picture was taken.  Can you see how tired Anna was from her eyes?

Anna loved her grandmother very much.  And we who are still here love her very much as well.  If I could characterize my mom in a few words I would say that she is kind, patient, consistent, steady.  I have always known that whatever situation I may find myself in I have a constant cheerleader in my mom.

Happy Birthday, Mom.  May your next 80 be as blessed as the first 80!

Samuel at 12; Lincoln and Darwin at 200

13 02 2009

This post is one day late, and the title is intentionally deceptive.  It is not the facts that are wrong, but rather that I am not going to talk about Lincoln and Darwin.

Yesterday, Feb. 12 was Samuel’s 12th birthday.  We always knew that Samuel shared Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.  But it was only this past week that we learned he also shares Charles Darwin’s birthday, and that Lincoln and Darwin were born on the same day 200 years ago.

I am at the office and do not have the pictures of the brief celebration we had at Samuel’s school, but there is a picture of his cake that you will not want to miss.   More later.

Samuel is really developing as a fine young man.  He continues to do well at school.  He is active in boy scouts.  He is finishing up his first basketball season.  He has definitely improved over the course of the season as he has learned more and more about the game and how it is played.  We have seen lately a change in Samuel as he begins to take new responsibilities and show some independence.  He is growing into a young man.

The two photos below were taken in Italy.  The first shows Samuel climbing (or descending, I forget which) Brunelleschi’s dome atop the Duomo cathedral in Florence, Italy.  The other photo was taken inside St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.  My battery was fast fading on the camera and I told Samuel I had only a few photos I could take.  He quickly told me to turn it off and wait for two pictures he wanted.  The first was a photo of Michelangelo’s Pieta statue.  The second was the photo below of Samuel standing at the foot of St. Peter.  I pray that Samuel would grow to be a man like St. Peter, a disciple of Jesus, a fisher of men, a man that could be used by the Holy Spirit to preach the gospel boldly as Peter did in the book of Acts and later in written form in his two letters.

Happy Birthday, Samuel.  We love you.  Mom and Dad.